Cowboy Bebop: The Theme of Doubt, Death and Awakening

This essay deals with the different definitions of death and awakening in the anime Cowboy Bebop, exploring the referenced Asian spiritual and religious beliefs. The intention is not to insinuate these are the ultimate truth, just explore what they say. I personally have no one belief system I follow. It’s more of a mish-mash.

“Doubt everything.” Mish Mash Blues, the extra episode of Cowboy Bebop tells us.

What’s doubt? Doubt is the path you take to arrive at what you can definitely be sure of. This mention of doubt so vehemently seems to refer to Cartesian Doubt and Solipsism. Also the doubt of the Butterfly dream of the Taoist Master Zhuang. Both Cartesian Doubt and the Butterfly Dream are often paralleled and the latter is written a love letter in the Cowboy Bebop movie, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

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For me, doubt has been a way of thought I’ve tried to cultivate…not to say I’ve achieved any spiritual heights with it or anything, because it’s not easy. Just that I try to use it to keep my ego in check. It allows you to stay more centred, empty, not captive to just the perception of the self. It’s a journey and I am somewhere on the way.

Even what I write, whether the current writing around Bebop or anything else, I doubt. I question it and keep trying to verify it, looking from different angles, eliminating something if I discover it no longer holds true. What I write is based on my observation, research, and intuition. There may be a lot more or a lot less than what I am seeing. So read it with your own doubt and question it till it makes sense to you. If it doesn’t, find what does.

I feel the show was constructed in a manner to encourage the viewer to doubt as well…doubt your first impression of things, keep questioning if you have the absolute right idea. Why build a canvas so confusing otherwise? I mean, you can interpret the show in a very straightforward manner if you want to, as a simple story of lost love and revenge, but you will definitely be left with things which won’t fit in. Maybe there is no “right version,” just the closest you can come to eliminating what doesn’t seem right to you to get to what does. It doesn’t just apply to the stories of main characters or the Monomyth running through disjointed episodes either. It applies to the bounty heads, to each individual story we encounter which ultimately gets us no where, doesn’t move the narrative forward at-all…or doesn’t it? We are blatantly told at one point that the story doesn’t go anywhere but it does. You meet that one character whom you see once and never again but they leave their impressions on what you take away from the story, the impact of that one episode on the overall series, how you view your protagonists, or the conclusion you derive from another story later because something resonates or contradicts from the earlier one. Sometimes you look at someone and think if they are even a real character or just a recycled version of someone we already know. Anyway….

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Different characters within Bebop are shown doubting their reality, unsure if what they see is the real world, a dream, or just parts of reality. It leads them to different paths in the context of the story but there is also a much deeper thread underlying the narrative, one which is much more spiritual and transcends the story. It’s the idea that the truth is beyond all of the doubts, beyond past, present and future, beyond the perceivable reality. We live our lives like actors on a stage, just like these drawings on the screen, but ultimately all are governed by the same universal laws. The death of someone on the screen is about as real as the eventual death of the viewer watching them. Whether a character dies at the end credits or later is meaningless because he will eventually die at some point in his life just like all of us. We cannot build any narrative in our heads around him without factoring in this reality. And that is the ultimate futility which the show keeps reminding us of, a beautiful futility. You can either use it to live your life pessimistically or make the most of what you get here and keep an eye on what is beyond this, whatever it may be. You can either live in the fear of death or embrace it as an old friend.

Who an individual was, what they did, what they possessed is all ultimately rendered meaningless in the face of death as a certain reality. The story builds a myth of Julia for so long only to have her pass away in a moment like her life was very much a dream. Vicious expends enormous effort to build his reality in the image which ultimately fits his own values to have it all end in a moment, a moment which he himself engineered.

The Daoist idea of pre-determined destiny and the pointlessness of human effort are driven again and again through our protagonist escaping certain death simply because it is just not his time to die yet. Because he yet has a role to play in the world. The idea is not nihilism or fatalism here but living life in freedom, without fear (think of what Bull says in both the movie and in the finale-the two scenes are directly linked) because Daoism literally says “whatever happens, happens.” It’s also pointless to seek out death or waste your life away. Once your role is over, you will be allowed to leave, but not a moment sooner or later (think to the story of the cat who keeps coming to life till his purpose is served).

Then what is this world? This “real world” which is so fleeting, so uncontrollable?

To answer the question of what is actually real, Descartes began the process of doubting everything, including what he could perceive through his own senses. By doubting and eliminating all which did not absolutely hold true, he did arrive at one final thing which he was sure of “I think therefore I am.” That the conscious thinking self is the only thing which one can be sure of. This is the crux of Solipsism-the understanding that only the self can be known to exist. All else is doubtful.

Over the course of time, both long before Descartes and after him, similar understandings have evolved across philosophical and philological thoughts in different parts and eras of the world. Descartes questioning what is the truth is no different from the question which led Buddha to leave all behind in search of the ultimate truth. It is the same question which Master Zhuang woke up with wondering, asking if he was dreaming he was the butterfly or the butterfly dreaming it was him. It is found in the teachings of Confuscious and so many other religions and philosophies.

The solipsist idea of the conscious self as the only surety is the occidental representation corresponding to the Buddhist ideal of Atman, the thinking and feeling self separate from physical form, energy which is recycled through the cycle of life and death till Nirvana is achieved. It’s same as the Vedic ideal of Brahman or pure consciousness as the ultimate form of the self, or the Taoist idea of the spirit which reincarnates again in different forms (and again, many other philosophies). These concepts may be complicated or extremely easy to understand but at the heart of them is the doubt which led to these questions. All come down to the idea that life exists beyond just this world, that the self or consciousness is beyond material reality, and ongoing. What we see here may be a seen as a mere illusion, a dream, a field of action. But we ourselves transcend it all. Our existence doesn’t stop at death since we are not just the body. In the Taoist text Zuangzhi, Master Zhuang refers to himself in the third person to indicate this detachment.

Concepts from both Buddhism and Taoism are mentioned across Bebop. The theme of the show is Spike’s Karma, as quoted by its creators. Karma is the Sanskrit term meaning ‘Action’ and is a core ideal for Buddhism. Good Karma takes you up spiritually and bad Karma drags you down.

Death in the context of these spiritual traditions is not necessarily just the cessation of the physical form. It can also to refer to transformational events which change an individual drastically while being very much alive in the body. Prince Siddhartha Gautam left the palace to take on the life of an ascetic seeking enlightenment and became ‘Buddha,’ a spiritual rebirth while in the same body.

Similarly in Bebop, death is not always physical. Spike refers to the end of his past life as a death since it was a transformational event for him. He moves from doing some very bad things to a comparatively more moral life. He goes from being a bad guy to literally catching bad guys, regardless of the motivation. Awakening can definitely refer to him awakening from life in the form of death but spiritual awakening refers to a shift in one’s plane of consciousness, moving to greater wisdom. Awakening is also often used to refer to the attainment of ‘Enlightenment’ or realisation of the ultimate truth.

For Vicious, who stands at the opposite end of the belief system, awakening refers to Spike stepping back into the immoral and violent life of his past since he views a more benevolent life as a “step down.” When they meet in the end, he believes the bloodlust in his former friend has been awakened again and that is what he comments on right before their final battle. For Spike, awakening is moving away from the bloodlust and he refers to this earlier, talking about bleeding all that blood away.

Similarly, “Ascension” can definitely refer to the act of leaving the body and going to heaven or another plane. But in these traditions the goal is never a “heaven” or “salvation.” In both Buddhism and Taoism, we are given this life and the body with a purpose and the journey of the soul here on earth is very important. We come here to live out our roles, destinies and Karma. It is here that we achieve spiritual ascension which eventually allows us to transcend this plane of existence in the right way. This translates to cessation of rebirth in Buddhism but a more evolved state of being while continuing to be a part of the eternal rebirth cycle in Taoism. But in Buddhism, to achieve Nirvana, one needs to either attain enlightenment or have all their Karmic debt settled.

As per Buddhism, you cannot run from your karma but only by settling your Karmic debt and doing right action can you begin the journey of true spiritual ascension, moving to wisdom and true freedom from the bounds of this world which is fleeting and steeped in suffering. Whenever you die and leave the body, you are pure energy and can’t settle any earthly debts. The body is a tool for spiritual growth because through it you can perform actions.

All the different belief systems have their ways of tackling this unreal world but essentially the crux for all comes down to being a better human being, in-line with the flow of the universe, nature, divine will, or the pure self. It is only through all or a mix of transcendence of the ego, detachment, right action, settling past Karma, discipline, doing one’s duty, ceasing unnecessary effort, being present, not living selfishly or hurting others unnecessarily, and any other number of wholesome practices that one can achieve true freedom from the illusion. Running away or living poorly never gets you anywhere.

For instance, Spike coming back to the Bebop at the end to share a meal with Jet is a shift in him toward honouring his emotional obligation to someone who depends on him and has done a lot for him. It’s one of the indicators of him beginning to take accountability for his Karma, a shift toward greater wisdom. It’s irrelevant to whether he lives or dies next but he chooses to not leave that end open without paying due respect. I do want to explore how Spike’s karma flows through the story and where it stands by the end but likely in another piece…because rabbit holes. But the crux of it is, I do not feel Spike’s karmic cycle is resolved by the end of the show because he has people still relying on him, who need him, and hence saying he has died and achieved Nirvana at the end (as is assumed by most people from the fading of the star) is a fairly simplistic take without any understanding of Karma or Nirvana.

There is also a reference to Lakota belief through the mention of Wakan Tanka, the great spirit which animates the universe and whose realm of peace a soul achieves after it has journeyed well. This does not seem exactly accurate to original mythology though, more adapted to drive the message of Karma perhaps and Bebop did receive criticism on the character of Laughing Bull.

Anyway, point of the matter I guess is-don’t be obnoxious. Doubt everything till you know for sure that what you believe is the absolute truth. It’s a fleeting world.

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8 thoughts on “Cowboy Bebop: The Theme of Doubt, Death and Awakening”

  1. I am Indian and am obviously familiar with karma at-least superficially but please write on that because you seem to have a hang on that whole philosophy thing. I interpret the karma theme as the Syndicate life catching up with Spike because of all the bad things that he did and also maybe what he did to Vicious since he was a friend. Is there more to the story than this?
    I particularly enjoyed that parallel you have drawn with awakening. It seems a lot simpler to understand what Vicious was trying to say. I see it getting all sorts of different interpretations. The bloodlust one is very accurate i feel…

    1. Hello. Sorry I fell a bit behind in responding to the comments. Life happens. 🙂 And hey! You’re already familiar so that’s amazing. So yes definitely the karma bit ties in with his past and him trying to leave it but there is a lot more to it. I will definitely capture it in something. I’m trying to figure out whether to do one combined thing on Spike and make it part of that or as a standalone piece. There is a LOT to cover on him because he is such a complex character composed of so many parts which are all different. I’m also a bit alarmed at how many pieces there are now so trying to be cognizant of not creating too much content but I guess it’s not like I am doing this for money so if the ideas are there, why not write them.
      Oh yeah. I’ve seen the “being awake” thing interpreted as him being ready to die etc. but it’s really not that at-all.

  2. Whoa!!!!!! I gotta say this went right over my head first time round!! That’s an effing complicated thing you got here man. So they’re mentally ill and doing both Taoism and Buddhism? LOL. I read it again and it started to make some sense but i don’t know this stuff much so it might be a while till i get it. Could you maybe share something which is simpler to follow for someone like me? It’s asking a lot but would be good to get it for a change.

    1. Hey there! I’m so sorry if this got too complex. And yeah these are things which aren’t so easy to get-I’ll write a piece on Spike’s Karma and will definitely try to give more context there to these ideas in simplified form. The issue is that often on the net also, this information is not captured correctly or is only understood partially. I’m thinking of how to structure that one so it is easier to follow. Let me try. 🙂

  3. I agree with the guy who said it went over their head. Ha ha. Gotta rethink a lot of stuff now. Doh! moment reading your death is as real as Spike’s…this is gonna give me an existential crisis for sure but amazing insight as usual

    1. Hey there! Again super sorry that this got complex to follow. I did not set out to try and do that. Sometimes what I write gets away from me, especially if it deals with something I’m very passionate about. Going back and reading it, maybe I needed to give more context here. Modifying this will now just make it longer. I will add a full and proper explanation in the piece on Spike’s karma so it’s easier to follow.

  4. The instinct to just copy-paste the whole analysis in the comments and go “I liked this part” is so STRONG

    When they meet in the end, he believes the bloodlust in his former friend has been awakened again and that is what he comments on right before their final battle. For Spike, awakening is moving away from the bloodlust and he refers to this earlier, talking about bleeding all that blood away. <<< LIKE. ALRIGHT. LISTEN. YEAH. DANG. YOU GOT IT. YOU HAVE MADE A CONNECTION I DID NOT REALIZE I NEEDED. YES.

    There is so much here and it's all fire. The inherent spirituality to Bebop is fascinating but a lot of it I just don't have experience with, and this essay gives me so many little rabbit holes to go down and explore while providing the terms needed to explore them. Especially when it comes to karma and your mentioning Spike's mish mash quote of "doubt everything". That one confused me for so long and now having the context I'm so excited to go back to mish mash and delve deeper into their meanings (or lack thereof!)

    Again, a brilliant and insightful exploration

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